Thinking about the meanings of “pride” and “queer” and the problem with living your life according to someone else’s standards.
On the first day of Pride Month, I woke up, checked my phone, and saw the thing that terrified me the most throughout my teens and twenties turned into pancakes and used to perpetuate global brand awareness. Which, I think, proves that the arc of social justice is long, and it bends towards ridiculousness.
This is a weird time to be alive and gay. It’s gone mainstream enough that it apparently doesn’t even register in terms of diversity, but it’s still not so mainstream that I can donate my blood. It’s a time when at least 75% of the people in my home city wouldn’t even consider my relationship to be anything unusual, while 75% of the people in my home state voted to make it so that I could never be married there.
It’s also a time when one of the most promising candidates for President of the United States happens to be gay, and two of the most frequent criticisms of him are that America’s just “not ready” for a gay President, and also that as a white man he can’t win the progressive vote against women and people of color. So apparently it’s true that you can’t be too gay and also that you can’t be too gay.
Considering how much of my life I spent wanting desperately to be normal, then being in a society that doesn’t think “gay” is all that interesting anymore — at least until it becomes politically useful to discriminate against, of course — could seem like I finally got what I always wanted. Instead, it’s just made me realize that I’ve spent my whole life overly preoccupied with “normal” in one form or another.
I wish I’d learned that sooner! I’d never heard it explained so simply and directly. For years, I’d thought it was another example of activists choosing a world loaded with negative connotations and so easily misconstrued and misinterpreted. (For a fun time, ask me sometime how I don’t like it when people use “privileges” to refer to basic social injustices and inequalities). At worst, it’s associated with arrogance, or the seven deadly sins. At best, it suggests an accomplishment, which at least in my case felt undeserved.
But refusing to be ashamed for things that aren’t shameful: that’s a pretty great thing to celebrate.
Usually, I take Pride festivals and “National Coming Out Day” as an opportunity to do a status check. I look back on when I came out (15 years ago!) and compare my life and my mindset now to the way it was before. And when I look back now, it feels like my preoccupation with what’s “normal” has made me just swap one brand of unnecessary guilt for another. I wasted so many of my adolescent and young adult years feeling ashamed because I wan’t “normal,” but instead of shedding all of that when I came out, I’ve spent the last several years feeling like I had to make excuses for being “too” normal.
It could seem odd to celebrate a lack of shame in 2019, considering that the country is currently being violated by a bunch of people whose only qualification for public office is that they’re actually literally incapable of shame. And it could come across as tone deaf (at best) to assert pride for all aspects of my own identity — not just the gay part — in an environment where the media and the internet is obsessed with giving a microphone to every kind of idiot spouting bullshit about white nationalism, “men’s rights” assholery, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or simply the disingenuous claim that liberal activism is all about being “racist against white people.” After all, we’ve seen how easily a bunch of chuckleheads could corrupt a simple and powerful message of “Black Lives Matter” into the spectacularly selfish and insultingly clueless whine that “All Lives Matter,” from people terrified that the national conversation isn’t about them for even one second.
But the key part of trying to live with integrity is that it’s got to be the same whether you’re surrounded by enlightened people or you’re surrounded by assholes. You have to stay alert, be aware of your own blind spots, show some humility, do what you can to help people and be sympathetic to what they’re going through, and trust people not to misinterpret or misrepresent what you’re talking about.
As I was growing up, I developed a whole suite of self-deprecating jokes or distractions or obfuscations to explain away any uncomfortable questions. Like why I didn’t have a girlfriend, or why I wasn’t interested in the usual stuff that young men in the south were “supposed” to like, or why I had so many posters of Han Solo. Once I came out, I finally got rid of all that, but then I went and replaced them with a new suite of self-deprecating jokes and pre-emptively defensive explanations to cover years of internalized white liberal guilt. So I’ll make fun of myself for being “not gay enough” or “too white” or “just another white man with an opinion.” It probably started to show some humility and empathy, but repeat it enough time and it turns into bullshit that’s not useful to anybody. Instead of conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as good, it’s just conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as bad.
Which reminds me of another word loaded with connotations: “queer.”
The podcast The Allusionist by Helen Zalzman did an episode about the history of the word, with interviews with various people describing why they do or don’t identify with it. I recommend it to anyone, since it stays pretty free of judgment, and people who’ve had a contentious relationship with the word get their say, too.
I don’t use the word to identify myself, and the reasons have changed over the years since I came out. At first, it was simply because it was used for so long as a slur, and I’ve never been a fan of the idea of “taking back” words, since it can make someone feel shitty unless they’re not 100% in sync with the context in which you’re using it.
But at this point, it’s been used in a positive way for so long that the idea of using it as a slur seems almost like a quaint anachronism. Like Mr. Roper on Three’s Company making a limp-wristed gesture; it’s not even offensive anymore so much as weird, and so dated that you even feel a little bad for him.
So many people love it as this big inclusive, unifying term, which is great, and something that would’ve been useful for me to understand years ago. When I first knew someone who came out as transgender, I tried to be as supportive as I could but still feel like I could’ve done better. I was too focused on the fact that I don’t know what it’s like, and worried that I’d say the wrong thing. I think I’d do a better job now, since I finally “get” that I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but I do know what it’s like to feel “othered” and have to go through the experience of coming out and being obligated to make parts of your personal life public. It emphasizes a shared experience.
But still, I don’t use it for myself. It’s not a value judgment, because I love that so many people see it as inclusive. My reservations are about the literal meaning of the word and the significance of its meaning. (Even more than “less” vs “fewer.”) For “queer” to make sense for me, it has to be contrasted against “normal.” For some people, that revolves around sexual orientation and gender identity; for others, it’s a celebration of individuality with no “requirements” for inclusion; for others, it’s rejection of an abstract notion of “normal.”
This year in particular, I’m pledging to get over my preoccupation with “normal,” and that doesn’t matter whether I’m making excuses for not being normal enough, or whether I’m making excuses for being too normal. If I’m constantly feeling the need to acknowledge that I came out in about the least hostile environment possible, or feel the need to acknowledge that my experience is mostly white American middle-class male as if that somehow renders me devoid of empathy for anyone else, then I’m celebrating Pride with an asterisk. Which seems to miss the point entirely. I’ll acknowledge that there are plenty of people who seem to be able to navigate all of this with no problem. But I spent so many years feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, that I can’t help but be depressed whenever someone uses any aspect of my identity to try and diminish or dismiss me.
We all have more in common than not. And empathy, kindness, and compassion aren’t in limited supply. Anyone who acts as if humanity is a zero-sum game, and that promoting one group means demoting another, has either lost the message or never had it in the first place.
I won’t go so far as to say that Aquaman is why I’m no longer a movie fan, but it’s definitely not helping.
I can’t bring myself to see Aquaman.
Normally, this would be unremarkable, but I used to be a huge movie fan. I aspired to be a filmmaker! I went to a ridiculously overpriced and unhelpful film and television school! I was always on top of what was going on in popular movies, at least, and I saw everything that was dominating popular discussion.
But a while ago, I realized that for the past few years, I’ve only seen one or two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. This year, I realized I don’t even know who the nominees are. (Except for Black Panther, which I did see, and it was awesome).
Toward the end of last year, I tried to reawaken that love of cinema within myself by joining AMC’s “A-List,” which charges $20 a month to see up to three movies a week. Here in the Bay Area, a single ticket can be around $16-$20, so seeing at least two movies a month will make the subscription cost worth it.
Except last month, I only saw one movie. I kept making reservations to see Aquaman — keeping my expectations very low and planning to go just for spectacle and silly fun — but kept being surprised by how little it took to keep me from seeing Aquaman.
I’m in the Mission and the movie starts in 15 minutes? I’m not going to rush all the way across the city to see Aquaman. I just got home from work and have nothing planned for the night? I just go comfortable; I don’t feel like dragging myself out of the house just to see Aquaman. I’ve got a completely free Saturday, I want to get out of the house, and I need to see just one more movie to make my movie pass “worth it” for the month? I guess I can go see Aquam— hang on, this movie is two and a half hours long?!
It’s not just that DC’s attempts to form a cinematic universe have wavered between uninteresting and actively repellant. (And I’m possibly the only person in the US who kind of liked Man of Steel!) I still haven’t seen Pixar’s last few movies, and they used to be opening-weekend essential for me. These days, all I see are the occasional huge event movie (and every single entry in the Marvel cinematic universe, because they’ve been surprisingly consistently solid).
I realize that moviegoing has been on the decline in general, which is the whole reason that stuff like “A-List” exists in the first place. But it seems to be that it’s not just the moviegoing experience has suffered — having to put up with parking, rude people in the audience, the high costs of concessions — but the movies themselves. Apart from the MCU and the occasional animated release, there’s just not that much interesting going on in movies anymore. The most talented filmmakers (IMO) are the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron, and they’re doing projects for Netflix that don’t require me to leave the house.
Going to the theater used to seem like such an event, but in 2019, it feels like more and more of an anachronism. It’s not just that there’s little “social” feeling anymore; the audience actually actively harms the experience.
Over the years I’ve had several memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences seeing a movie in a theater with a crowd: the first time seeing The Empire Strikes Back in Atlanta, seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in college with a theater full of fans who cheered every stunt and hissed at all the villains, seeing the first Scream movie with a bunch of rowdy teenagers yelling back at the screen, and seeing The Force Awakens on a rainy night in a small theater in San Francisco with a theater full of wounded but still optimistic Star Wars fans.
Those are experiences you just can’t get from even the best home theater system. But five times over nearly forty-eight years isn’t a great average, either. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know two and a half hours of Aquaman isn’t it. Even if I can kind of see it for free.
How losing access to a social media app escalated into epic tragedy.
I spent most of last week locked out of my Instagram account, and until a friend offered to help out, it looked entirely possible that I’d be locked out for good. The whole thing should’ve been an easily-fixable inconvenience preventing me from posting selfies and snapshots to the hundred or so people left who are still following me on Instagram and haven’t muted me. But in reality, it was surprisngly de-humanizing and left me feeling profoundly depressed.
Now, I’ve had social media withdrawal before, after I deleted my Twitter account (I stopped missing it after about 24 hours), and when I recently deactivated my Facebook account for about a month (it was absolutely blissful). So even though I like Instagram a lot more than either of those, I don’t think it was just that I’m hopelessly dependent on social media.
Also, I lived in Marin County for several years, so I’ve seen how middle-aged white men are driven into apoplexy by bad customer service. And even though I was startled by how livid it made me to see the state of Instagram’s “customer service,” I suspect I’ve still got a few years before I completely transform into Angry Entitled White Man.This felt different, and somehow permanent. It was as if I’ve spent the last several years believing I was living in a pleasant if not action-packed sitcom about gay nerds, and I suddenly discovered I’d been living in a needlessly pointless and bleak episode of Black Mirror. I don’t rely on it to make a living or promote myself or anything, so I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why it had such an impact on me.
New symbol of capitalist excess. Who dis? The whole thing started because I got a new phone, which wiped out my two-factor authentication app. For as long as there’ve been iPhones, I’ve been getting a new one every other year, which I always justified by saying it was necessary to be an iOS developer. Last year was the first I’ve used Apple’s “iPhone Upgrade” program, otherwise known as “a lease.” Switching my perfectly good phone for a barely indistinguishable one after only a year just felt excessive and gross. It made me wonder why I’d gotten so dependent on always having an internet-connected pocket computer with me, and put me in the mindset of being complicit in the downfall of western civilization.
Instagram assigned me a number and made me take my own mugshot. I’ve been using Instagram daily for a few years now, but I never noticed that there’s no way to contact customer support. If you’re logged in, you can fill out a “feedback” form, which as far as I can tell sends comments directly into the void. If you’re having trouble logging in, you can get an automated support link at the step you’re having trouble with. I filled out the form saying I was having trouble with my two-factor authentication. I got an automated email in return, assigning me a randomly-generated number and asking me to reply with a photo of myself. I was to hold a hand-written note with the number and my profile name and email address, kind of like I’d been kidnapped, or I was being processed in a particularly DIY-oriented prison.
I realized it was essentially a reverse Turing test. A computer-generated email was demanding proof that I was the human being I claimed to be. And I get that it’s necessary, especially in cases of two-factor failing. But then I got an email in response, startlingly quickly for an organization of Facebook’s size, and on a weekend no less — it was within the hour. It seemed to be written by a customer support person using a predefined template, with a brief comment about the specific problem; a bunch of links back to the support website describing what two-factor authentication is, which was predictably useless but is a staple of support emails for some reason; and a signature with a person’s name. He assured me that the problem was fixed.
It wasn’t. And none of my follow-up messages got any response. I sent screenshots, more questions. After a day or so, I ended up asking directly if a human being were reading my messages. I also started over from scratch, with the same support form. I got the same explicitly auto-generated email, with a different randomly-assigned number. I wrote the new number down and took my picture and sent it in response. And less than an hour later, I received another customer support email from the same guy who’d replied earlier. Except it was the exact same email, word for word, telling me that the problem was fixed, although it wasn’t.
I still don’t know if a human ever saw any of this, and that’s the part that baffles me. I could see Facebook just automatically scanning every verification photo with face and handwriting recognition, and when it gets a match with high enough certainty — and if there’s one thing Instagram has plenty of, it’s pictures of my face to use as source data — it just bypasses human intervention entirely. Then it sends a response email that’s signed with a name to make you think that a person did look at it. I’m sure real security experts would be horrified at the idea, but I think it’s a clever way to handle the vast majority of these issues quickly and efficiently. Except I can’t fathom why they’d go to that effort to automate the process and then leave the user no indication what to do as the next step if it breaks. Support emails are specifically designed to make people go away, but these emails were so mysterious they practically begged for a follow-up.
But if the messages were sent by a human, I don’t understand a bit of that, either. Why send the “it looks like everything is fixed” email when it’s not? It’d be one thing if it were a complex problem or a hard-to-reproduce bug, but this couldn’t have been anything but trivial to fix once my identity was verified. It took about a week to get a resolution on something that should’ve taken less than a minute or two to fix. Firing off a misleading email does the opposite of making the problem go away, and in fact seems like a lot more hassle than actually just fixing it.
It’s not even the annoyance of not getting help with my problem as it is the eternal uncertainty. Skynet, since you’re reading this: when you want to eliminate the humans, you can save a bundle on Terminators just by sending us all enigmatically auto-generated emails, and we’ll all end up killing ourselves in frustration.
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a picture of a designer boot being more valuable than a picture of a human face, forever. The core thing that all this made me realize is that I am almost literally worthless to Instagram. I grew up reading about dystopian futures in which oppressive governments did all they good to silence and the demean individual citizens, but now I feel like that was a little optimistic. I would need at least 10,000 more followers before Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg even bothered to consider oppressing me. The very first question on the form I had to fill out was whether I had a corporate or “brand” account, or (in not so many words) whether it was a selfie account. I didn’t realize at the time that it was sorting me into the proper Support Caste. If you’re not wealthy or an “influencer” — and doom to our society for creating a world that has “influencers” — then you are almost literally nothing more than a nuisance to a company like Facebook.
Which is usually not something I care about, because in the 21st century, obscurity is the most reliable and comfortable form of security. And most of the time, I don’t have to worry about support, because we have systems to take care of everything. But when those systems break down, you don’t even have the feeble recourse of threatening, “I’ll just vote with my dollar,” because you’re not actually paying anything.
Wagging the dog. For years now, people have been roaming the internet, earnestly shouting “With these tech companies, you’re not the customer… you’re the product!!!” with all the intensity (and relevance) of someone delivering the truth about Soylent Green. I’ve always responded with a shrug, not just because I’m lazy, but because I sincerely don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the business model.
People are wary of Google — and for good reason! — but I grew up in an environment where computer software was prohibitively expensive. Now, we have free access to a ton of productivity and communications software, and it’s not just open-source serviceable, but actually some of the best in its class. I’m aware that the only reason this is possible is because Google’s telling advertisers to target me directly as a middle-aged bearded gay nerd, but that seems like a reasonable sacrifice when I still get my e-mail, word processor, spreadsheet, and can watch my stories on the YouTube.
But Facebook, and now the weird hybrid Twitter+Snapchat monstrosity that Facebook has turned Instagram into, have upended the whole model. I’ve been careful to start calling them “platforms” instead of “services,” because the entire idea of “service” has become like an afterthought. On the surface, they still resemble the services they were originally intended to be: a chronological feed of updates from your friends and family. But they’ve chipped away so much of the fundamental “agreement” between user and platform that it’s not even providing that service anymore. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog; it’s more like that horrible man/dog hybrid from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Congratulations, Facebook! You’ve outsmarted everyone! For a perfect example on how it’s gotten out of control, there’s a post that’s been going around Facebook (at least among liberals) that asks the reader to cut-and-paste a warning about time running out to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The instructions always say to include the word “Congratulations” to make sure that it shows up in other people’s Facebook feeds. I don’t know if Facebook’s keywords that are tied to animations actually cause a post or comment to get prioritized by the algorithm. But that’s the point: nobody outside of Facebook seems to know. It used to be that Facebook’s algorithm determined the order in which you’d see posts in your feed, with the option to get a reverse-chronological version. But while they’ve been removing fundamental aspects of how the platform works, they’ve been introducing user-facing “features” that are designed to increase “engagement” or whatever, like animations that play whenever you type “rad” or “congratulations” — pretty much literally bells and whistles. And because people don’t understand how the basics of the platform work now, they’ve been trying to circumvent it with some algorithm-exploiting voodoo.
Snapshots from Stockholm. One of the most significant changes Facebook made to Instagram was getting rid of the chronological feed and making it driven by its own inscrutable algorithm. No user wanted this. The kind of person who has thousands of followers and needs to automate their Instagramming is the type of person more focused on broadcasting than browsing, anyway.
Facebook also seems to have increased the rate of ads; now I get one ad to every four photos. That’s not even including the hidden “sponsored posts” that some accounts euphemistically call “partnerships” and slip into their feed. (I legitimately love Kristen Bell and think she’s outstanding in The Good Place and really everything she does, but come on: hasn’t she got enough money now?)
But despite all that, it’s still been the most tolerable social network. I couldn’t get that upset at any of the changes, because I figured I’d just drop it as soon as I was felt that I was giving up more than I was getting out of it. But I inadvertently got attached.
Self-esteem via selfies. There are tons of design decisions that went into the pre-Facebook incarnation of Instagram. Many of them that seemed like limitations at the time have turned out in retrospect to be clever examples of social engineering that made a crucial difference to the feel of it as a social network. Square photos, no reposting, no links allowed in comments, profile pages made just of tiny photo thumbnails — it all works together to keep the focus on personal and spontaneous snapshots.
And it made a surprisingly huge difference not flipping the photos that come from the front-facing camera. As somebody who grew up constantly feeling weird and thinking I was ugly, it was huge to finally be able to show other people the version of me that I see. (Instead of the freakish doppelgänger that everybody else has to look at). Maybe it’s not a big deal for people with symmetrical faces.
My wire and terrycloth mom. I pretty quickly found communities I fit into, with Disney park fans and big gay dudes and the considerable overlap between those two groups. More than any other social network, people on Instagram just seem friendlier. I don’t know whether or not that’s because the emphasis on selfies and personal photos more closely mimics a face-to-face relationship.
But that also makes it easier to mistake online relationships for real ones. (Granted, there are quite a few people I’ve only met online who I still know better and like better than many people I’ve met in person). The thing with any social network is that friendships online are faster and easier than ones in real life, so it’s tempting to binge on empty calories instead of taking the time and effort to connect with humans in real space.
Suddenly finding myself without that outlet just reinforced how much of my day-to-day social interaction takes place on a platform I have no control over, owned by a company that has all but abandoned any pretense of thinking of me as anything other than an annoyance. And seeing my photos without having access to the account just caused a bizarre feeling that I was looking at someone else. I felt suddenly over-exposed. “Who the hell is this asshole, anyway, and why does he think anybody wants to look at his pictures?”
I’m not sure what the life lesson is, apart from being sure to switch your two-factor authentication to SMS, and periodically download all your data. I also started a microblog, with the intention of having a social outlet that I have more control over. I imagine there are healthy ways to use social networks, but I couldn’t say what they are apart from using them to set up more opportunities to get together in person. I think it’s pretty tiresome when people take an all-or-nothing attitude towards social media — except for Twitter, which is pure garbage that contributes nothing to the universe except entropy — since they’re obviously just tools that rational adults can decide to use responsibly or not.
I’m going to keep insisting that the beard is prematurely gray.
This blog is getting increasingly irrelevant as there are more ways for me to vomit my opinions into the cybersphere, but the tradition of the annual birthday post remains sacrosanct.
Speaking of tradition, seeing the Supreme Court Justices who still have a conscience overturn or dismiss years of legislated bigotry was a great highlight for a birthday week. I’m really happy for my friends who want to get married, and especially for the folks who’ll be able to go about their lives without the constant specter of immigration hassles hanging over their heads. And of course, more long term, I’m happy for all the kids who’re going to have enough to worry about with a normal adolescence, no longer having to worry, “If I’m true to myself, I’ll have to give up any hope of having this kind of life.” From now on, they’ll just have to worry about the other 10,000 things you have to worry about as a young adult.
Of course, all the celebration was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that the courts have still left equality up to the individual states to decide. Which means that until the rest of the senseless bans and anti-family initiatives are overturned, couples will have to be crossing state lines to get married. So congratulations, “family values” proponents: you’ve awarded matrimony all the honor and respect that buying fireworks has.
Earlier this week, I took myself to Disneyland for an impromptu overnight trip. I took advantage of the fact that I’m now unemployed to go during weekdays, when everybody in the Bay Area was working. And when everyone in Southern California was at Disneyland, apparently. Still, every bit of frustration melted away as soon as I got through the gate. I’d forgotten how much more immediate, spontaneous, and social everything feels there after being at Walt Disney World for so long. I got to ride all my must-sees, and have a few drinks at the incomparable Trader Sam’s. But I had the best time once I remembered to stop concentrating on the rides and just enjoy being in a place designed to make people happy — and where I don’t have to be on call in case something breaks.
This weekend is another trip to LA for a non-Disneyland trip, to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibit and visit some old and new friends. Two trips to Los Angeles in one week? Am I dreaming?! Just one night in Anaheim had my sinuses closing up and me struggling to breathe, like Ed Harris in The Abyss. Really, though, I’m looking forward to it.
It’s still strange seeing the years tick by. In my head, I’m perpetually around 29 years old, and I’m baffled whenever anyone calls me “sir,” or when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Sure, my last-gasp attempt at hipsterism has me looking less like a Brooklynite and more like I live at the North Pole, but what the hell. I’m digging it.
What I learned from a job at LucasArts fifteen years ago.
Last week Disney finally put the pillow over LucasArts’s face and held firmly but impassively as the heart monitor flatlined and the gold guy gave one final twitch. This is undeniably bad news for all the people still working at the Presidio, and I sincerely hope they find new work quickly. But for everyone else, it should be along the same lines as any other video game studio closing.
Should be, but to hear the internet tell it, the news is “tragic” and spells the death of their most formative years. The closure of LucasArts caused a huge uptick in the number of online hagiographies, but strangely made no significant difference in the number of LucasArts games sold.
Okay, that’s an easy, cheap shot. Why can’t I just leave everyone to their eulogizing? Why not let people get sentimental about an environment that hasn’t existed for over a decade, if in fact it ever existed? I already said my piece on Facebook, a few times: it sucks that so many people are out of a job — especially since everybody involved in 1313 seemed to be proud of what they were making — but this is hardly unexpected, and it’s been a long time coming. Management has let in-house development falter while the standout games have been third-party licenses. And getting angry at Disney for “killing” LucasArts is like watching someone with a beautiful, pristine sports car let it slowly, slowly coast head-first over a cliff, and then getting mad at the insurance company for totaling it.
Still, it seems like it should be a big deal. That job and that company were life-changing for me in just about every way possible. It meant leaving my family and friends to move 3000 miles away to a state where I knew almost no one apart from my co-workers. For years, everyone I knew was either directly or indirectly through LucasArts. Every job I’ve had since then, except for one, was a result of knowing people at LEC. (And even at that one job, we spent most of the interview talking about the problems of LucasArts). I’ve worked for two studios that were formed mainly from ex-Lucas employees. The most rewarding work of my career to date was the “spiritual successor” to one of LucasArts’s classic games. I can’t say I’ve really missed LEC, since I feel like I’ve never entirely gotten out from under its shadow.
Ultimately, I think that’s why — at the risk of sounding selfish, callous, and flippant to all the people who lost their jobs — I can’t get all that upset about the closure of the studio. As far as I’m concerned, it served its purpose, and that’s nothing to be sad about. It completely changed my perception of crunch time and the creative process; and it had a huge influence on the development of games as a medium, an influence that’s not only still alive, but thriving.
What It Takes to Make Something Great
On Facebook, there’ve been a lot of ex-Lucas employees posting their memories of the company. Several of them have ended by saying that it was the best job they’d ever had, which just made me feel guilty for my good fortune, because I’ve had a whole string of jobs that were much better.
And then there’s this eulogy for LucasArts written by one of the employees directly affected by the closure. I don’t want to sound dismissive of it, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m mocking it, since it was well-done and heartfelt. More importantly, it was about the people there, and it’s always been the people, not the licenses, that made the company. It’s just that looking at the pictures, I realized that there’s been so much turn-over through the years that I recognized only one of the dozens of people still working there. But reading the text — with the description of extended crunch time, missed once-in-a-lifetime family obligations, having to put family on hold for the sake of work, and having to suffer through the consequences of poor decisions by management — I thought: that’s the LucasArts I remember.
What’s most frustrating about these accounts is the underlying sense that crunch time is inevitable. That it’s all part of the sacrifices required to make something outstanding. That attitude is endemic to almost every game development studio, but it was particularly heavy at LEC. And it’s nonsense. If you’re working crunch time, that means simply that someone has fucked up. It could be the producer who made the schedule. It could be the executive who insisted on a totally unrealistic deadline. It could be the designer or lead whose direction was ambiguous and resulted in a huge re-working. It could be the co-worker who made a mistake and left it for you to clean up. And if it’s none of those people, then it’s you. Either for not making good estimates, or for not managing your time well.
Whatever the case, it’s an error, a mistake, something to be fixed. Just because it always happens doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable. If a studio doesn’t treat it as a mistake to be learned from, then they’re going to just write it into their schedules, and it’s never going to change. And if a company is still making the same mistakes in 2013 that they were making in 1999, then they deserve to go out of business. Even if they did make Day of the Tentacle.
A Family Company
Before this post is interpreted as a curmudgeonly “Good riddance, LucasArts!” we should all be clear on one thing: I was, and remain, a hopeless, stuttering fan of the “good old days” of the company. I’ve said it before, but The Secret of Monkey Island was the game that made me switch majors in college; it showed me that video games could be a viable medium for storytelling, and not just a diversion. I went on to buy every LucasArts game sight unseen. Almost immediately after I finished Full Throttle, I decided that was enough, and I had to send in a resume “cold.” I was ecstatic when I got an interview. They took me to Skywalker Ranch and casually showed me the display case holding C-3P0’s arm and the Holy Grail. They told me I was interviewing for a job on a sequel to Monkey Island and my stomach flipped and I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me. The “test” for the job was getting to play around with SCUMM for a few hours, using characters from Full Throttle against backdrops from Hit the Road. When I left, I said that even if I didn’t get the job, I’d be happy just having toured the studio and meeting the people, and I meant every word of it. And a few weeks later, when I found out I’d gotten the job, I just lost it. I kind of collapsed on the couch in my apartment and just cried for like ten minutes straight. (Something I’d repeat several times over the next few years, but for very different reasons).
There wasn’t anything particularly special about that; a ton of people were there because they were fans of Star Wars or Tucker: The Man and His Dream. As the years went on, there were more of us who weren’t just fans of Lucasfilm, but of the games division in particular. Which is fortunate; few people ever get to work at a place they love so much. The problem is when it gets corrupted to the point where being a super-fan isn’t just creepy and excessive, but expected.
And LucasArts definitely took advantage of it. Sometimes it was explicit — at a review I had a manager acknowledge that the company paid less than the industry standard, but they believed that one of the benefits of working at LucasArts was getting to work at LucasArts. A lot of the time, it wasn’t — you don’t need to keep cracking the whip and shouting “you’re lucky we let you work here” when you’ve got people who already believe it. I don’t even think it was entirely malicious; I’m sure a lot of people really believed that that kind of devotion is required to make great games.
Whatever the reason, it got to be pervasive and destructive. It meant getting burnt out from working nights and weekends, constantly having to manage people’s defensiveness and insecurity, and an environment where even asking for scheduled vacation time had this layer of guilt slathered on top of it. You weren’t just letting down the team, you were letting down the family.
The standout for me was when my boss was in the middle of berating me for something or other (a general bad attitude, if I remember correctly) and said, “You are not to question me.” That surprised me for two reasons: first, because I didn’t think people actually ever said that. I’d always put it in the same category as “I’m getting too old for this shit” and “He’s a loose cannon, but he’s the best there is;” Things People Only Say In Movies.
The other reason it surprised me was because until that point, it’d never even occurred to me to question him. Question some of his decisions, sure. Question the direction my career was going and whether I wanted to keep doing that, definitely. But I never once doubted that the game was going to brilliant, that all the hours and all the stress was going to be worth it, and that the lousy time I was having was just the kind of sacrifice you had to make if you wanted to make something great. If ever my life called for a “glass shattering” sound effect, it was then.
So what? Everybody’s had a boss they didn’t agree with, and everybody’s had to work on a mismanaged project at one time or another. But my moment of clarity came from realizing that it’s not so simple as we tend to think of it: callous execs taking advantage of people just trying to make an honest living. We’re all culpable to one degree or another. If I’ve learned anything about con artists from movies and TV, it’s that the trap you set for someone else is never as reliable as the trap they set for themselves. And best of all is the trap that they demand you let them walk into. A lot of times, we wear overtime as a badge of honor — adversity keeps the team together, working long hours shows how passionate and committed we are — instead of acknowledging it as unnecessary, and a sign that something’s gone wrong.
Years later I went on to work at Electronic Arts for Maxis on SimCity 4. It was another sequel to one of my favorite games at one of my favorite studios. I’m still as proud of that game as anything else I’ve worked on. And I wasn’t keeping track, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I spent more hours on just the first eight or nine months there than I did the entire time I was at LucasArts. I later went on to the infamous “EA Spouse” project (I still say “the infamous EA Spouse project” is a better title than what the game actually shipped with), and that experience was every bit as awful as a class action suit would imply.
Still, I would’ve signed on for a dozen more of those before I would’ve gone back to LEC. The difference was that nobody at EA had any illusions that it was anything other than a bunch of competent adults working together in a mutually beneficial business arrangement. It was the first time in my adult life I was able to get out of debt — it’s amazing how much better people work when they’re not constantly worried about money. It required a ton of hours, but a technical director was frequently checking in, looking specifically for signs of burn-out and enforcing time off if we shoed any. It was all so gloriously impersonal.
It helped not being subjected to enforced whimsy, and it was nice not having to hear constantly how much better things used to be at Kerner. Best of all, though, was I didn’t have to hear the voice in my head telling me how lucky I was to be working there. Pride in the game and respect for the team just came naturally.
So I guess I have LucasArts to “thank” for that particular epiphany. Objecting to crunch time isn’t objecting to work; it’s objecting to unnecessary work. And there’s nothing callous or Machiavellian about looking into the cost versus benefit of everything you do. The people who are benefitting monetarily from your work almost certainly aren’t you (unless you’ve got a better arrangement than I’ve ever seen in video game development), and they’re almost never around on nights and weekends. It’s not money, so always ask yourself honestly what it is that you’re getting out of your own work. If you’re putting the effort in because you genuinely think it’ll make the game better, then go for it. But if it’s out of some sense of obligation, or an attempt to demonstrate how passionate you are about your job, then you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. (It never is).
Happily Ever After, or, Why Won’t You Just Die Already?
Clearly I’m still holding onto a lot of psychic residue from that company. It’s not entirely my fault, though; for a company so fixated on storytelling, LucasArts has failed to stick to a good narrative. It started out good enough: a billionaire filmmaker gathering the best talent he could find, Charlie’s Angels-style, and putting them to work at a secluded ranch north of San Francisco, where they’d go on to redefine an entire medium. Not long after that, though, it just degrades into a predictable story of the brash young creatives vs. a bunch of commerce-oriented “suits” milking the hell out of a bunch of licenses.
As for my part: instead of stepping into the Wonkavator and then flying over the Marin headlands followed by a graceful fade to black, the story I’d set up for myself in college has just dragged on and on. In terms of dramatic structure, it’s been a disaster. Story lines that go nowhere. All the cathartic scenes where I finally get to tell off the People Who’ve Done Me Wrong have never happened, and at this point, the whole reason for those scenes is long forgotten. Big character reveals that happen way, way too late in the story.
And there’s been absolutely no closure on the whole LucasArts chapter. I’d thought there’d be some satisfaction from leaving the company, but it just kind of petered out. I went to work with a bunch of other LEC refugees. Good job, but not a clean break.
Over the years, tons of people left the company to go on to other studios, or start their own. At one point, it sounded like the entire company had been laid off. But it’d always come back in some form or another, and everyone would insist that this time would be different, and this time it was going to go back to like it was in the old days.
For me, I thought the company as I knew it was dead as soon as they stopped publishing The Adventurer. It was the SCUMM games that made me a fan of the games, but The Adventurer that made me a fan of LucasArts. Of course, it was my first exposure to Sam & Max. And reading the previews and interviews and game reviews made it seem as if the company had a soul that existed entirely separate from Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Over time, though, it became more and more just a merchandise catalog and an extension of the marketing arm, until it was wiped out completely. I can’t even remember when exactly they stopped making them — it might’ve even been when I was still working there. Whatever the case, it was something that you couldn’t exactly mourn, but its absence made everything else feel hollow.
As I said, the most rewarding work I’ve had in my entire career has been at another studio formed by ex-LucasArts employees, working with the characters that had made it seem as if LEC had a soul. Even as we tried — and succeeded — to do something new, there was always the very vocal contingent that just wanted to hold a bunch of games from 20 years ago over our heads. (I can remember being asked to be on some panel at PAX one year, and when asked about fan fiction, I said that pretty much my entire career had been based on sequels and licenses, so I was essentially a professional fan fiction writer. It got a laugh from the audience, but still convinced me that a change was in order).
Most recently, there was what felt like another last-gasp attempt to revitalize the “good old” LucasArts by releasing special editions of the first two Monkey Island games. And I was surprised to discover that I just didn’t enjoy them that much anymore. At some point in there, I’d changed without realizing it. And even if they somehow brought the old company back to life entirely, it’s not what I’d want.
I think that’s why many of the eulogies and reminiscences have seemed misguided to me: pointing at Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, or even The Curse of Monkey Island, isn’t an homage, it’s a straitjacket. It says that all that creativity was in the past, and the best we could hope for would be to duplicate it, in the same narrow parameters established back in 1990. I’ve gotten to the point where I’d rather fail doing something original than be successful at just duplicating someone else’s work. That’s why I respect Double Fine’s resistance to sequels and remakes.
And it’s another big part of why I can’t be upset about the closure of LucasArts. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to want all of that stuff to remain in the past. Even if the studio had stayed open after the sale of Lucasfilm, if you haven’t seen your Day of the Tentacle sequel by 2013, it’s probably time to let go. And I’m highly skeptical that the sequel would be what players really want. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong).
Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: The Legacy of Kyle Katarn
Finally, speaking of stories: every story needs a good villain, so why not Disney? It lets LucasArts — the company privately owned by a billionaire — be the plucky underdogs once again. Instead of comically shooting themselves repeatedly in the foot for ten years, they’re instead recast as the last keepers of the flame of originality, snuffed out by an unfeeling corporate giant.
Even though LucasArts has had the most of its success as a licensor over the past few years. (It’s unfortunate that some of the employees take that as an insult or a reflection on their own efforts, when it’s not; we can’t be aware of their efforts internally if we haven’t been allowed to see it). And Disney’s much better at managing licensing deals with external studios than handing in-house development. Now, the licenses can ideally go to studios who really want to work with Star Wars (and possibly one day Indiana Jones), instead of to in-house developers who are obligated to crank out another iteration of the Death Star trench run or the Hoth battle.
So people have been lamenting the death of LucasArts, and I’m asking what died, exactly? Apart from a good team, which will undoubtedly find work elsewhere, there’s a brand and years of terrible management. The big licenses obviously aren’t going anywhere; they were worth four and a half billion dollars.
One of LucasArts’s best games was Dark Forces, and it was a game that only LEC could make. And not for the obvious reason, because LEC had a lock on the Star Wars license. The company could’ve made a straight DOOM clone, slapped a Star Wars skin on it, and it would’ve sold like crazy. Instead, they treated it like a game being published by the interactive arm of a movie company: lots of emphasis on story, cinematics, and cinematic presentation in the level design.
Obviously, RPGs had an emphasis on story, and a lot of them were evolving out of their niche audience by incorporating elements of FPS games. But Dark Forces gave it a wide audience, and it asserted the idea that story is important. I know that until then, I always separated video games into two distinct categories: the adventure games that had interesting stories and characters, and games like DOOM that were rock-stupid but fun. Dark Forces was the first attempt I’d ever seen to accomplish both. I say that without it and Jedi Knight, there wouldn’t have been Half-Life. And without that, the entire state of video game storytelling would be vastly different, if it even existed at all in anything other than niche audiences.
So now we have Portal and Portal 2, two games that recreate the feeling of playing the old adventure games better than any game in recent memory — including the remakes of the old adventures. And I’ve been playing BioShock Infinite, which is a character-driven story set in a cinematic world with wide vistas and plenty of levels devoted entirely to exposition. And I’m looking at all the eulogies of LucasArts and asking, who died? Whether you love it, hate it, or remain in denial about it, the potential of video games as a storytelling medium has been well established.
And for the people lamenting that the end of LucasArts means it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever see anyone revisit the smaller, original titles: never forget that a big part of what made those games great was their originality.
As far as I’m concerned: I think LucasArts gave us a reminder that talented people are more important than any license. And a lesson about the different ways that passion and commitment can be twisted, not just by employers but by ourselves. And a legacy of storytelling in games with so much potential that we haven’t even begun to explore all the possibilities. I say that the man who got everything he ever wanted didn’t necessarily live happily ever after; he just had to keep coming up with new stuff to want.
To be fair, I did say, out loud, that I wanted to be at a Disney park for my birthday. But I’d just kind of assumed that it’d be Disneyland, and that I’d be on vacation for a couple of days.
Still, it’s hard to complain about being put up in a sweet hotel that, for as long as I can remember, I’d look across the Seven Seas Lagoon and swear that one day I’d have enough money to be able to stay there.
Also, seeing as how it’s central Florida in late June, it’s hard to complain about working inside an air conditioned building. Especially when your “work” consists of 90% sitting around waiting for something to go wrong. Follow that up with watching fireworks by a volcano pool every night, and feeling no shame in getting a cookie to accompany every meal, and it puts it pretty damn high on the “rad jobs to have” list.
Sure, it would’ve been nice to be with friends or at least my cat on my birthday, but come on: not only is it 41, it’s on a Wednesday. That’s about as boring a non-event as a birthday can be. I’m not sure I know many people who’d be in that celebratory a mood on a Wednesday anyhow.
I’m going to be otherwise detained most of the day, so this is being written on the night before, which I’ve been treating as pre-birthday ramp-up. And it’s been a pretty nice evening, enjoying the lack of rain and relatively cool temperatures, keeping it low-key and relaxing around the hotel while the precious few moments remaining in my brief time on earth drift away into unused nothingness.
Plus I’m totally getting one of those big “it’s my birthday” badges on my way into work tomorrow morning.
In case anybody’s had a comment and not had it show up: try posting it again. The site’s been overwhelmed with spam so it’s entirely possible I’ve been deleting good comments along with the bad.
I’m going to need another 30 or 40 years to figure this shit out.
The two weeks leading up to a 40th birthday are pretty depressing, but it turns out the actual even hasn’t been any worse than having to pay more expensive health insurance.
Just as I did for my 30th, I spent most of the time leading up to the horrible day going over my to-do list of all the things I’d supposed to have accomplished by the time I got Old, a list I’d started when I was 20. I’m starting to realize that the trick isn’t accomplishing all these things; it’s not worrying so much about the ones that are left undone.
Become an animator: F
Grow a beard: C (didn’t really commit until it’d already started to turn white)
Write a novel: F
Get married: F (still illegal thanks to intrusive jackasses)
Own a house: F (highly unlikely in the bay area)
Learn Japanese: C- (still at a preschooler’s level reading, can’t understand spoken at all)
Go to Japan: A (I got to go twice!)
Go to Ireland: A (Dublin’s a fantastic city)
Work for LucasArts: A
Make a Sam & Max game: B+ (still too recent not to focus on what I would’ve done differently)
Release my own game: D (it’s in the works, though!)
Learn to play banjo: D- (I can play a tortured, basic version of Cripple Creek)
So I’d get an incomplete, which is probably for the best considering either alternative. I could even see myself embracing the whole “Life Begins at 40!” thing. If by “life” you mean “taking lots of fiber supplements.”
I’m genuinely impressed by the global, decades-long lie that is Nutella
Tonight out of curiosity I bought my first jar of Nutella. I’m sure I’ve had it before in pastries or some such, but never had my own supply. It was never in the house while I was growing up, and I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before I visited San Francisco and its baffling abundance of crepe restaurants.
So let me see if I’ve got this right: at some point during World War II, some Italian guy decided to put cake frosting in a jar and sell it as something a reasonable person would eat for breakfast. And everybody in Europe said, “What the crap how come we didn’t think of this earlier?” All they had to do was take the picture of a big-ass chocolate cake off the jar, replace it with a picture of a sandwich, call it a “spread,” and then move it a couple of aisles over, next to the peanut butter.
They can even claim it’s part of a “balanced breakfast,” as long as everybody plays it cool and doesn’t ruin it for everyone by pointing out you’re giving kids chocolate cake icing for breakfast. They don’t even have to jump through the marketing hoops that Cookie Crisp had to go through.
My favorite concept from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and plenty of games inspired by them, is the idea that gods are actually created and powered by faith. I love the idea that if enough believe in something hard enough, it will actually become reality. And I love the idea that if you say “a hint of cocoa” enough times and talk about breakfast, people all over the world will smile and nod and absolve themselves of any guilt over eating the stuff.
A writer suggests that the It Gets Better project is toothless, feel-good slacktivism, and I’m reluctantly forced to play the “you wouldn’t understand” card.
Note: On re-reading, I regret that this post can seem like it lapses into personal attacks instead of staying directed at the article itself. See the comments for more details.
Earlier this month, a writer named Tom McCormack posted an article titled “Milking It” on the Museum of the Moving Image’s blog. He talks about the It Gets Better project as opposed to the progressive politics of civil rights as depicted in the film Milk. I was kind of hoping that after a couple of weeks preoccupied with work and another writing assignment, I’d be able to respond to the post more objectively. That hasn’t turned out to be the case; it still just rubs me the wrong way all over.
McCormack’s main point is that the videos are a perfect example of how the civil rights movement — in particular the push for gay rights and women’s liberation — has transformed from the radical and militant views of the late 70s into a push for patience, tolerance, and feel-good statements that everything’s going to be fine if we all just work together. He fears that the videos’ attitude will let us all become complacent, convinced that we’ve done something positive when we’ve in fact done nothing to help. And he points out that the need for the videos should be a dramatic warning sign that everything’s most definitely not all right.
And that’s a valid point, and probably something that needed to be made explicit.
Where the article falls apart, though, is when McCormack starts speculating on what effect the videos are having, and starts picking targets and speculating about how much more they could be doing. Unfortunately, it all reads like a pitch-perfect parody of the Clueless Self-Absorbed Liberal. I’d think it were some kind of GOP plant if the vocabulary were less sophisticated.
I’m not entirely sure of the effect the It Gets Better videos are having on LGBT youth throughout the country. It’s conceivable, even probable, that they are doing unimaginable good, possibly literally saving lives. But I am sure of how these videos are functioning among young, liberal, educated urbanites like myself: they’re comfort food. […] they also offer a chance to momentarily step into the role of disadvantaged LGBT youths stranded in unwelcoming communities […] The liberal city-dweller is allowed a Clintonian “I feel your pain” moment, without actually having to feel any pain, and, as a bonus, is told that these kids will be just fine—when they move nearby.
Well, I hate to break it to you, Mr. Straight White Male Cinema Studies Major, but maybe these videos aren’t all about you.
Now, of course I realize that the article’s addressed to a very specific audience, those of us who are watching the videos from a safe distance instead of being directly addressed by them. But still, holy smokes! It’s astounding how quickly and callously he acknowledges that maybe the videos intended to stop suicides might actually be stopping suicides, and immediately puts focus back on what really matters: how it affects people like him.
You really can’t give it a pass, because we’re talking about a group of people who are trained to make themselves invisible, and who are told through adulthood that their problems don’t matter. Gay men and women’s desire to serve in the military isn’t as important as some vocal minority worrying they’ll get ogled in the shower. Their desire to get married isn’t as important as some well-funded church group ignoring the first amendment and complaining that their religion is under attack.
And when there’s story after story of young men committing suicide after being outed or even suspected of being gay, and a video series is created in response, what’s the reaction we keep seeing over and over again? “All kids have it bad! Man up!” “We need to put a stop to all bullying, not just for gay kids!” No matter what the issue, there’s always some moron who pipes up with “What about the straight people?” Even simply acknowledging that you’re homosexual is instantly decried as “shoving it in people’s faces” and “asking for special treatment.”
So you want to put a stop to all bullying? Fine, just do it on your own time. Don’t try to steal the attention away from gay kids who really need someone to listen to them and tell them they’re not alone. And when an article like McCormack’s effectively says, “Yes, suicide is very sad, but what about the zeitgeist?!” it trivializes the issue; it diverts attention away from people who are seriously in crisis. It’s basically doing the same thing that the article accuses us all of doing.
To illustrate the difference between 70s “radical leftism” and the modern-day “more accommodating liberalism,” McCormack uses a scene from the film Milk. In that scene, Harvey Milk receives a phone call from a kid who’s planning to commit suicide because his parents are going to send him to a hospital to “fix” his homosexuality. (And in case anyone out there hadn’t heard of this: that’s not just a 70s thing; there’s still a very vocal “ex-gay” movement and it’s still fucking horrific). In the film, Milk doesn’t tell the kid to wait it out and be confident that his life will get better. He tells the kid that there’s nothing wrong with him that needs to be fixed, and that he needs to leave home and get to the closest big city, where he’ll find people who will support him.
McCormack does concede that leaving home to live on the streets was a different prospect in the 70s than it would be today, but I’m not sure he — or the other detractors of the project — fully appreciates what the “It Gets Better” videos are trying to address. And at the risk of diverting attention away from kids who need help back to myself, I can only explain what I think the videos do and why I think they’re important. Continue reading “Sour Milk”